OPINION | Pros and cons of DRC joining the East Africa bloc

On 29 March, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was admitted to the East African Community (EAC), becoming its seventh member state alongside Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. The DRC is the bloc’s largest country with a population of about 90 million. Its admission means the EAC now stretches from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean and represents a combined economy of 266-million people and GDP of $243-billion. 

Who stands to benefit from this arrangement and why has President Felix Tshisekedi sought EAC admission when the DRC is already a member of some of the continent’s eight other regional economic communities, including the Southern African Development Community (SADC)?

The primary purpose of regional economic communities is to facilitate regional economic integration between African Union member states, but they have increasingly become involved in areas beyond economic integration, including peace, security and governance.

The 1980 Lagos Plan of Action for the Development of Africa and the Abuja Treaty of 1991 proposed creating regional economic communities with a view to regional and eventual continental integration. But they have developed individually and under different geopolitical circumstances and, as such, their roles, capacity and structures differ significantly. 

Criteria for admission into the EAC is outlined in Article 3 of the bloc’s establishing treaty and essentially includes sharing a border with an EAC member state and acceptance of the treaty’s principles. The DRC’s admission to the EAC seems long overdue. The country borders five EAC member states and shares ethnic populations, languages and the natural environment with its neighbours. The DRC’s markets account for roughly 7% of EAC exports and are set to grow in coming years. 

Untapped potential

For the EAC, the admission of the DRC brings significant economic opportunity. The DRC’s economy was performing well above the continental average before the Covid-19 pandemic, at about 7.7% annually between 2016 and 2021. With a population of 90 million, the country is a prized marketplace, particularly for Rwanda and Uganda, who are the first and second largest exporters respectively to the DRC in the region. 

The mineral-rich DRC produces 68% of the world’s cobalt, used in the manufacture of batteries, and 30% of the world’s copper, used in the assembly of electric cars and renewable energy infrastructure. Along with gold, lithium, uranium and other precious metals, the DRC is positioned to supply the raw materials critical for future technologies and the fourth industrial revolution.

The World Bank argues that with 80 million hectares of arable land, huge hydropower potential and more than 1 100 listed minerals and precious metals, the DRC has the potential to become one of the richest economies on the continent if stability problems can be overcome. Consequently, there has been a growing list of companies looking for investment opportunities, with Kenyan banks in particular establishing a strong foothold. 

What the DRC stands to gain

For the DRC, joining the EAC will allow it access to the bloc’s Customs Union and Common Market. These are envisioned as “transitional stages to and integral parts thereof, subsequently a monetary union and ultimately a political federation.” 

The EAC’s Customs Union has successfully created a common customs territory where internal tariffs have been eliminated and a common tariff on imports outside the region imposed. Its Common Market protocol has seen the harmonisation of immigration procedures and waving of work permit fees among some member states. Today, citizens in East Africa can cross borders using their identity documents and international tourists need only one visa to travel between countries in the region. 

The African Regional Integration Index identifies the EAC as one of the most well-integrated blocs on the continent, scored along five dimensions: trade, productive, macroeconomic, and infrastructural integration, as well as the free movement of people (see graphic). 

Security problems

But DRC admission also brings with it major security problems. The eastern DRC is notoriously unstable, home to about 100 rebel groups. Recently, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), responsible for about 6 000 civilian deaths since 2013, has aligned with the Islamic State West Africa Province, drawn in new recruits from throughout East Africa and expanded its operational footprint in Uganda and Rwanda.

Relations between the DRC, Uganda and Rwanda have been plagued by conflict and mistrust with much of the rebel group activity in the region being a by-product. Rwanda has long been accused of supporting M23 rebels in eastern DRC, allegations that arose again in relation to recent M23 activity

Strengthening relations between Kigali, Kampala and Kinshasa a few years ago would have seemed unlikely. As head of the AU, President Paul Kagame unexpectedly challenged the results of the controversial 2019 Congolese election, which granted Tshisekedi (backed by former president Joseph Kabila) victory over the opposition coalition candidate, Martin Fayulu. But Tshisekedi has met Kagame on several occasions since coming to power and there has been notable bilateral cooperation on both economic and security issues, possibly indicating a major policy change in the post-Kabila era.

In 2019, a joint intelligence team was established to analyse data collected by the two countries in the fight against the ADF. Two high profile rebel leaders, Sylvestre Mudacumura and Juvénal Musabimana, were killed in DRC armed forces (FARDC) raids with the help of Rwandan intelligence. And last year, after terrorist attacks in Kampala, Uganda’s military deployed alongside FARDC troops in the eastern DRC to find and destroy rebel strongholds. 

Security risks to regional economic projects may be helping to create a convergence between the states which DRCs admission to the East African Community could accelerate. Conflict in eastern DRC is close to oil-bearing areas near the western border of Uganda, which Kampala is eager to develop and transport through a planned new pipeline

Rwanda will need DRC’s resources, markets and access to its Atlantic coast ports if it is to transcend its relatively small geographic size and population and become the African powerhouse Kagame seems to envision for the nation. In recent years, Rwanda has effectively used military diplomacy to support its economic and foreign policy ambitions. Its deployments in the Central African Republic and Mozambique have created an appearance of a highly professional military able to defeat rebel groups.

Is SADC the loser?

But the DRC’s admission to the EAC, has raised concerns among some in Southern Africa that this development is indicative of Rwanda’s growing influence as an economic and military powerhouse, and may result in firms from SADC member states losing out on investment opportunities in the DRC. The DRC is not the only country to hold membership in multiple regional economic areas. Tanzania is a member of the EAC and SADC, while Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi are also members of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa. 

But integration agendas can differ between blocs and membership in overlapping customs unions can create problems regarding posing common external tariffs. This is one issue the African Continental Free Trade Area is envisioned to address. 

On peace and security matters, there are additional complications. Regional economic communities usually take the lead on peace and security matters in line with the 2008 memorandum of understanding between the AU and subregional organisations and principle of complementarity, which governs AU-regional economic communities relationships. 

SADC has had forces deployed in the eastern DRC since 2013 as part of the United Nations mission’s Force Intervention Brigade. It is unclear which regional economic communities will ultimately take the lead on resolving the major security problems in the eastern DRC. 

Rwanda’s deployment of troops to Mozambique last year, ahead of SADC forces, angered some member states by pitting SADC solidarity and influence in Mozambique against Rwandan unilateral interests, further complicating Rwanda-SADC relations. 

In the past, SADC has publicly rebuked Rwanda for supporting armed groups in the eastern DRC. South Africa, a major SADC player, expelled Rwandan diplomats in 2014 after assassination attempts on Rwandan exiles and dissidents in South Africa’s borders. 

It remains to be seen if having the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda around the same table will improve cross-border security. 

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Stephen Buchanan-Clarke
Stephen Buchanan-Clarke is a political and security analyst with a focus on transnational security threats in Africa. He serves as head of Good Governance Africa’s human security and climate change programme.

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